I met Prof. Cary Nelson on Monday. Nelson, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Illinois, is former president of the American Association of University Professors, and the author of many books and articles on diverse subjects.
Nelson showed us his new book, Israel Denial: Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, & the Faculty Campaign Against the Jewish State. I only looked at it for a few minutes, but Elder of Ziyon has a complete review here. I want to write a little about the academic world that makes such a book necessary.
It’s an attempt to push back against the remarkably ubiquitous participation of Western humanities and social-sciences university faculty in the process of demonization of Israel. It’s axiomatic that today’s college students are tomorrow’s political and business leaders, and the fact that most Western universities are monolithic anti-Israel environments today is not encouraging for the future.
The most important part of the book is a detailed refutation of claims made by Judith Butler, Steven Salaita, Saree Makdisi, and Jasbir Puar, against Israel. With the exception of Salaita, whose work is so substandard and his public invective so vulgar that he has been unable to find and keep an academic position, they hold highly prestigious jobs and have no difficulty publishing whatever they write in the best venues. Butler and Puar, in fact, are professorial rock stars, with numerous awards and accolades to their credit.
Nelson, who is old enough to have grown up in an era in which standards of scholarship were adhered to – facts were checked before being cited, articles were carefully vetted before being published, candidates for academic positions were evaluated on scholarly rather than political criteria, and there was an implied commitment to seek objective truth – found himself shocked by the total collapse of academic standards in the humanities and social sciences. This was particularly evident in connection with the Israeli-Muslim conflict.*
Jasbir Puar, for example, has recently published a book called The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (2017), in which she accuses Israel of deliberately and sadistically starving, maiming, and stunting the Palestinian population in order to achieve its “biopolitical goal” of breaking the bodies and spirit of the Palestinians to end their “resistance.” One reviewer called the book a modern “blood libel,” similar to the medieval accusations that Jews murdered Christian children in order to use their blood to make matzot.
Puar gave a lecture at Vassar College in 2016 in which she claimed that Israel poisons Palestinians with lead, uranium and phosphorus, and that the IDF shoots Palestinians in order to harvest their organs – (something which, Nelson pointed out, is medically impossible). She threatened to sue anyone who released an audio recording of that speech.
Nelson explained that Puar’s factual assertions about stunting and starvation can be debunked quickly enough by a high school student armed only with access to Google. It’s possible to show that the nutrition of the Palestinian Arabs is among the best in the Arab world, and has greatly improved since 1967 (only to decrease somewhat in areas under Hamas control since 2007). Her claim that the IDF aims at the legs of rioters or terrorists is true – but only insofar as these are cases in which the alternative would be to shoot to kill. For most of her accusations, there is simply no evidence of any kind. Puar simply makes up the facts she needs, and then “explains” them with a vicious fantasy of Jews as Nazis.
Puar is published by the respected Duke University Press. Nelson wondered why their editors were unable to check any of her factual assertions. He wondered why her similarly defective papers passed the peer review required by scholarly journals, and why she has been granted honors, academic tenure, grants, fellowships, and other prestigious and remunerative perquisites despite her penchant for inventing facts and using them to support a superstructure of demonization of a nation and its people.
I do not wonder.
Some years ago, the late Barry Rubin told me about the collapse of any semblance of scholarly integrity in his field of Middle East Studies. He noted that when he was a student, he could expect his teachers, some of whom had political views diametrically opposed to his own, to evaluate his work on its merits. But then – due to endowments and donations from the Arab nations – the complexion of the departments changed, with candidates being selected primarily because of their political views. The brilliant Rubin, author of countless books and articles, had difficulty finding a university position.
This is now the case in many departments of humanities and social sciences, although not necessarily because of Arab money. It is particularly bad in departments of Women’s or Gender Studies (Jasbir Puar is a professor in such a department at Rutgers University), Ethnic Studies, and so on, but it is not limited to them. The explanation is threefold.
First, the postmodern understanding of the nature of reality that has become common outside of the hard sciences (where you might blow up the lab if you make up your own facts), allows the subordination of reality to narrative. Every identity group – especially oppressed minorities – sees the world differently, and no window on the world is more true than any other. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and one man’s truth is another’s lie. What is real is the narrative, and it is acceptable to create “facts” as long as they support it.
Second, the introduction of the (somewhat corrupted) concept of intersectionality, in which every member of an oppressed group must support the struggle of every other such group, seems to encourage every “victimized” person to speak out on behalf of other victims, regardless of their expertise. For example, Jasbir Puar, as a “queer” “woman of color,” apparently has the right to speak – even to write books – in support of the Palestinians, even if there is no reason to believe that she actually knows anything about them.
Third, and most important: while the postmodern destruction of the scholarly enterprise has affected other subjects of study, nothing else has been the focus of so much concentrated negative energy as the alleged ill-treatment of the Palestinians by Israel. No other stateless people has so many (or indeed, any) cheerleaders in Western academe as the Palestinian Arabs, and no state besides Israel – not even North Korea – has been so vilified by so many faculty members so much of the time. There is something very familiar about this. It’s always about the Jews, isn’t it?
For whatever reason, the viral memes of misoziony (extreme, irrational hatred of Israel, pronounced mis-OZ-yuh-nee) and bad old antisemitism have a solid foothold in Western universities, where ground zero is the identity studies departments.
Cary Nelson’s careful exposure of the lies upon which some of the more vicious attacks rest is a necessary corrective. But it’s only a starting point, and I’m not optimistic. One answer to Nelson’s question about why nobody at the Duke University Press fact-checked Jasbir Puar’s manuscript could be that where Israel and the Palestinians are concerned, the facts don’t matter. Why bother checking them when everyone knows that Israel is a sadistic oppressor of Palestinians, even if some of the details are wrong?
* The usual expressions, “Arab-Israeli conflict” or “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” are too narrow and do not capture what I see as its true nature: the religion-based rejection of Jewish sovereignty anywhere in the Middle East by almost the entire Islamic world, including the Arabs but also the Islamist regimes in Turkey and Iran.